Ruth Chang

How did you come to be an academic?

Inertia. I loved learning and didn’t ever want to stop. When I discovered that I really could get paid to do it, I was in. I didn’t really believe this until quite late in life, though. I grew up in an immigrant environment where wanting to be an academic was like wanting to become an astronaut – totally fanciful and somewhat frowned upon because somehow self-indulgent. So I became a lawyer first, with a four-month stint at a big New York law firm.

What was your experience in the legal world? 

I spent the first three months at a white shoe firm working on a pro bono death row appeals case. My guy got a pardon, not because of any brilliant legal argument on my part but because a friend from my torts class knew the governor. After that case, my senior partner called me into his office and noted that I had been at the firm for 3 months and ‘had yet to make the firm a dime’. I was promptly assigned to a small corner of some massive product liability litigation. We were defending the manufacturer of a faulty water valve – you know, the kind that cools nuclear power plants in case of catastrophic failure. That’s when I realized that I couldn’t commit to being a lawyer and would have to pursue my first love, philosophy, despite my doubts about whether I could succeed in it. I’ve been very lucky so far. 

In layman’s terms, what is your research about? What arguments or views are central to your research?

My research is about the ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ of life, and more specifically about the three key phenomena of normativity: values, reasons and agency. I’ve come to think is that normativity is fundamentally different in structure than we have supposed. If I give you an apple and an orange and ask you which is tastier, you will naturally assume that one must be tastier or they must be equally tasty. If not, their tastiness can’t be compared. The same goes it seems for comparing the morality of two acts or the social justice of two government policies. I’ve argued that this assumption is a mistake – apples and oranges can be on a par in tastiness and government policies can be on a par with respect to justice, where parity is a fourth basic way in which evaluatively very different items can be related. If this is right, then standard ways of approaching the should and oughts of life need rethinking. 

I have also written about commitments. I have argued that they can be grounds of normative reasons; we have normative powers to create reasons and values under certain conditions. We do this, I believe, most obviously in our love relationships and friendships. If this is right, then our conception of rationality needs to be expanded to make room for these robust normative powers. These views about the structure and foundation of normativity have implications for legal reasoning, belief formation – I’m especially interested in the case of religious belief – and social choice. This research undergirds another research project concerning hard choices – what are they and what should we do in the face of them? I’ve presented some of this work to audiences beyond the academy. 

What do you find most exciting about your research?

That some of it might – might! – actually be of use to some people. 

What are some big trends in Jurisprudence these days and how do you feel about them?

Oxford jurisprudence truly is unparalleled in the world, and there are lots of great people here doing really interesting work on a wide range of topics. ‘Jurisprudence’, however, is often understood quite narrowly as a continuation of the Hart/Dworkin debate – what is the nature or ground of law -- or as philosophy ‘applied’ to law. In Oxford, ‘jurisprudence’ is often conflated with ‘philosophy of law’, which includes the philosophical foundations of black letter law. All these investigations are important. But Jurisprudence has always been more than the philosophy of law – it includes moral, political, social, and legal philosophy. 

What’s exciting about Jurisprudence is that it is the only existing traditional discipline in the academy in which all branches of normative philosophy – moral, political, social, legal – can come together to investigate issues of fundamental intrinsic and public interest. I hope that the trend will be that Jurisprudence more clearly becomes such a place. I know that a lot of people – who have written or spoken to me – hope for this too. 

What would you like to see change in academia (at large or in your field of research)?

Jurisprudence, and philosophy in general, remains overwhelmingly male and white. This needs to change. 

I see a younger generation itching to do work of relevance to a broader public. That is in general a good thing, but at the same time I think it’s important not to dilute the worthwhile work on issues without any public payoff. 

I also see a move towards a kinder, gentler ethos in philosophy and jurisprudence, which is also great. 

Finally, I think philosophy and jurisprudence are starting to crack open in substance. There are ways to maintain the rigour and precision of philosophy while shifting norms about what counts as worthwhile work. We should follow Aristotle here: different sorts of question require different sorts of proficiency, aptitude, and precision in order to yield different sorts of insights. (That’s a paraphrase). And we should be open to different sorts of insights. 

What are some of your non-academic interests, pursuits, or hobbies?

I love music and have played the guitar, piano, harpsichord, violin, and flute. I still sort of play the piano but have gotten so bad that it isn’t always a pleasure to do so. While a graduate student here, I took daily trips to London to the Royal Albert Hall or some other venue to watch Russian ballet, which I found absolutely delightful and riveting. I spent a year of my JRF at Balliol blissfully reading novels. (Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that). These days, between long to-do lists, I find great pleasure in low-brow pursuits – give me a Marvel blockbuster or sci-fi flick any day and I am happy as a clam. 

If you had to pick a desert island book (academic or not), music album, or film, which one would it be?

I suppose the point would be to take something that would transport me from my bleak circumstances? In that case, I’d take all recordings by Evgeny Kissin. And the Star Wars flicks and their progeny. 

This interview was conducted in May 2019 by Carolina Flores (St. Hugh's, MMathPhil, 2016) who is a philosopher working in epistemology and social philosophy. 

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